Noreetuh, a bastion of innovative Hawaiian cuisine (and home to one the city’s best wine lists), belongs in the latter camp. Resy talked to co-owner and general manager Jin Ahn about the closure — and what comes next for New York City.
Resy: Can you walk us through Noreetuh’s final days, before the dine-in ban on March 16?
Jin Ahn: It goes back to right around the week of March 9. We’d been talking about how coronavirus will affect New York City. I’d had conversations with different people in the industry about how restaurants who had Asian origins were being targeted and losing business, but we really didn’t know how badly it was going to hit. But right around that week of March 9th, you could immediately see mass drop-offs in the reservations and the turnout at the restaurant. You become aware that we’re heading towards something big. But up to that point, I really wasn’t sure how bad it was going to be.
We came to grips with how people were feeling. My wife is a nurse, and she said, “In order for this to come to an end, the world has to stop.” And it really hits you. Okay, the world has to stop. Will the government do this or do we have to do it?
On Saturday, March 14, we had the meeting with the partners, and we discussed where we wanted to head. At that point, we said, “Until the government tells us we need to stop, there’s really no point of stopping.” Cause once you stop, there goes your business, there’s no more income stream.
But the next day, we spoke again, and we’re like, “OK, but even if the government doesn’t tell us to close, isn’t it our moral obligation to keep everyone safe?” We decided to close the shop. A day later, governor Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down. And although restaurants were part of essential businesses, we didn’t think that it was worthwhile, not even from a financial perspective, for people to show up to work during that time.
You know what, just shut it down, let’s see what we’re going to go through and we’ll figure out the rest later. So that’s really what happened. And we’ve been closed ever since.
You’re not open for takeout and delivery. Was it because of what your wife had said, that in order for this to end, the world has to stop?
I think it’s a combination of that. Every business is different. Every person is different. Every family dynamic is different. My business partner-chef, Chung Chow, he has a wife who’s a nurse, has two kids, and his in-law with him. And I have a wife who’s also a nurse, and we have three kids, and a 70-year-old in-law living with us. So you take all of this into consideration, thinking, “Are we really essential workers?” If you really want to play that role of an essential worker, perhaps we should just open a soup kitchen, or something along that line, right?
Our wives played a very big enforcement part, because we were itching to go out. We were like, “We feel like we need to do something, we have to do something.” But they basically said, “I don’t care if you go out, but if you come back and give it to every single one of us here, what is that going to do? We may have the immune system that can fight back, but our children might not. Our older parents might not.”
My part is to really flatten the curve.
Has the community supported you?
People started reaching out, “What can I do to help? Some of the other restaurants have set up GoFundMe pages and they’ve already raised a lot of money for their staff, maybe you should consider doing that.” So we did and raised a decent amount of funding for our staff. They said the funding they got from the page really helped them out throughout this time. I’m really grateful for those private citizens who really went out of their way to give us a lending hand.
We really pride ourselves in taking care of anyone who comes through the door, and it was one of those moments where you’re very grateful for everything. You go through that weird sense of validation in what you do. It’s an odd time period, but you understand you’re all in it together.
When do you plan on reopening Noreetuh?
We’re planning on reopening in mid-July for delivery. Opening at 50% capacity for us is really the same; it doesn’t change that much. About the same amount of people will be working. New York City has done a tremendous job of flattening the curve, but it’s really going to come down to consumer confidence. I think people that are going to come to our restaurant are going to come because they love our food, love the people, and love the things that we do differently.
What’s your biggest hope for restaurants coming out of this?
The biggest hope is that we save as many businesses that are worth saving. There are so many people who’ve passed away. Every life is worth saving. Businesses, on the other hand, I sort of disagree on. I hope that any business that’s worth saving comes out saved one way or another. But every business will suffer a loss. It’s a pandemic — we cannot come out of this unscathed.
The restaurant business is not a viable business for most. If you hit a 10% profit margin, you’re a very good business. I think Noreetuh has run on like a 2% profit margin in the past five years. It’s sad, because you think that if you put in 60 hours a week, you should be able to come out with something in your hand to take care of your family, and still live the life that you always wanted to live. But that’s not the case, we’re constantly in a rat race. It’s a rat race that I personally enjoy because this is what I’ve always wanted to do. But it comes at a high cost, and I’ve really come to realize that after spending time at home.
I just hope that passionate people stick through it, lift through it, and help shape a better future.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Well, you know, I’m hopeful. No one’s giving a damn about having to wear a mask now. Three months ago, that was the biggest problem, “Oh my god, I have to wear a mask!” Now, they understand, “Yeah, we have to wear a mask, it’s not just for me, it’s for everybody.” People just have a very different outlook now, and understand that if we can overcome a pandemic, we can overcome anything. And the economy that went down the toilet, guess what, we’ll rebuild it. I’ve got confidence, it’s just going to take some time. I have confidence in New Yorkers. I have confidence in Americans. I think everything is going into a more positive direction. And honestly, if you don’t come out of this a better person, something’s wrong with you. That’s all I gotta say.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.